Interview: Michelle Goldberg on Sex, Power & The Future of the World

Michelle GoldbergMichelle Goldberg's groundbreaking book comes in like a lion this April. The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World (Penguin Group) is no ordinary overview.

Goldberg's investigation into the intersection of the war on reproductive freedom and the global war for power spans four continents. From the HIV/AIDS epidemic to female circumcision to overpopulation to infant mortality to abortion rights, Goldberg analyzes how the means of reproduction influences the health of whole societies--even as women's rights have been sidelined by governments and social movements, and even as reproductive rights are weirdly isolated as "women's issues" only. Goldberg emphasizes how the struggle to control women's bodies is the next great human rights struggle of our globalized world.

It's a stunning book, an absolute must-read.

Goldberg found time in her travels through Buenos Aires to answer questions for Bitch about this struggle and about her book. Explore more at The Means for Reproduction's website:

Book CoverThe Means of Reproduction spans four continents and five decades--in a concise 234-page book. What incited you to take on this ambitious project?

I'm not sure I realized how ambitious it was when I started. The subject was kind of a natural for me, because it combines so many issues that fascinate me, including reproductive rights, religious fundamentalism, globalization, the conflicts between feminism and multiculturalism and debates over poverty and development. But I didn't know all the tangled history until I started digging into the archives. I had no idea, for example, that the United States government had worked with a notorious underground abortionist to create a safe, handheld manual abortion device that could be exported worldwide!

One of the amazing things about the history is how completely it has flipped. During the early decades of the Cold War, all these hardcore national security types were obsessed with overpopulation, which they thought was going to cause so much misery that it would drive poor countries to communist revolution. Meanwhile, countries like China insisted that the real problem was the economic order, and that population growth was either neutral or positive. By the Reagan years, the poles were completely reversed.

What does the struggle to control reproduction in the U.S. have in common with struggles around the world? What is different?

On the one hand, the United States has exported its culture wars all over the globe. Right-wing groups the world over have adopted the language and some of the tactics of the American anti-abortion movement. Often there's a formal relationship. The man who spearheaded the drive to ban all abortions in Nicaragua, for example, is the local representative of a Virginia-based group called Human Life International.

Yet the very fact that these issues arise abroad as part of a global battle creates a different dynamic. The United Nations and the international system, for example, play no role in the debate here. It would be inconceivable for American lawyers to challenge domestic abortion restrictions on the grounds that they violate international law, something that's happened in may other countries. (The story of how abortion rights came to be recognized in international human rights law is an important part of the book). Often the debate about abortion in parts of Latin America and Africa gets recast in the language of imperialism and colonialism. The history of population control—sometimes coercive—tends to color everything. And because aid agencies and rich country donors want recipient nations to expand women's rights, local conservatives claim that feminism is a form of foreign subversion, an attack on authentic local cultures. Never mind that these same conservatives are closely aligned with allies in the US, the Vatican and in some cases Saudi Arabia or Iran.

That's another thing I find fascinating—at the global level, there are all kinds of alliances between Christian and Muslim conservatives. At one point, as I write in the book, the Vatican even tried to help Libya reconcile with the West in exchange for its promise to stand firm against reproductive rights at the UN.

Meanwhile, there are some places—I'm thinking specifically of India—where the issues are so different that they can really challenge Western preconceptions about reproductive rights. Sex-selective abortion is a huge problem in India, and it's creating a generation that's dangerously dominated by men. Feminists there are working to eradicate the practice, and tend to be less concerned than we are with ideals of absolute reproductive choice.

How is new media and popular culture reflecting the intersection of power and reproduction? What potential influence do you see?

I don't see this stuff getting covered much at all. Perhaps it seems too obscure and recondite—international law, women's rights and development aren't exactly considered sexy subjects by the mainstream media. In fact, though, there are all kinds of drama and compelling philosophical conflict at play, if you can get beyond the stilted beauracratese of the UN and the various aid agencies.

Thirty or forty years ago, there was tons of attention to overpopulation—as someone says in the book, it was like global warming is today. But once the debate became more about women's rights than about national security or the environment, the mainstream lost interest. One thing I hope is that more people will realize that women's rights are absolutely integral to transcendent issues of war and peace, poverty and development, environmental destruction and sustainability, and cover them accordingly.

You're an investigative journalist. Particularly given that this is a time of transition for journalism, how would you like to see your field evolve in its approach to reproduction, sex, and power?

I'm actually pretty old-school—I think the depth and complexity of these issues are best conveyed in long-form print journalism. They are some great blogs covering these issues, but I find blogs most useful when I'm already immersed in a subject. Perhaps it's because I'm 33 instead of 23, but I find it much easier to assimilate information when someone has taken the time to turn it into a narrative. The new media transfers some of the storytelling work that writers used to do onto readers, who are left to order and make sense of a torrent of information on their own. Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I believe that as the space for serious print reporting narrows, books will serve an ever-more important purpose in making sense of the world.

Of course, I also wish that the big magazines would give these subjects the attention they deserve, but as long as their mastheads remain overwhelmingly male, that's unlikely to happen. Not necessarily because the editors are sexist—more because this stuff doesn't even make it onto their radar, and if it does it doesn't capture their attention. That's irritating, obviously, but it also means that there's this huge, rich, overlooked territory for journalists like me to explore.

What is the impact of having U.S. president who is not only pro-choice, but who is actively addressing reproductive health around the world—by, for example, rescinding the global gag rule in his first 100 days?

It's hugely important. One thing I tried to show in the book is that American abortion politics often have more impact abroad than at home. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, there's only so much that anti-abortion politicians can do to reward their supporters domestically, but they have much more scope for action internationally. Bush devastated women's health programs worldwide, and Obama was able to set quite a bit right with a stroke of his pen. Still, just as the international anti-abortion movement discovered a host of new tactics during the Clinton years, we can expect them to find new ways to fight reproductive rights around the world despite Obama's policies.

What's holding us back from realizing a future where women's bodily self-determination is valued?

Most of the last few thousand years of human history! Seriously, reproductive freedom for women is largely a new thing in the world. It is very closely bound up with modernity more generally, and it's not surprising that many find it threatening.

Anything else you'd like to add?

One thing that I really hope comes through in the book is that the global battle over reproductive rights isn't just about outsiders trying to change homogenous local cultures. It's a huge mistake to see the most conservative forces in a society as the repositories of authenticity. In every country I've ever been to or studied, there are women fighting to free themselves from the encrustations of misogyny, and they deserve our solidarity and support.

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by Anna Clark
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

How can I take anything

How can I take anything Goldberg says seriously after the horrible, sexist, patriarchal and ill informed article about midwives and home birth. Shame on you and your witch hunt and your injustice towards birth and women!

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